Boom Nation: Meet Me in St. Louis

My mother grew up in a place that was somewhat like Gudermuth's house. But later on, with three children and my father traveling a lot, we moved from the inner city to the suburbs. Partly it was concern about crime and schools, but also it was to satisfy a deep longing my mother had: "I had never lived in a new house," she explained. "I wanted to live in a house that no one else had ever lived in before me."

Sally Benson, the author of "Meet Me in St. Louis," based the story on her family and their 11-room home at 5135 Kensington Ave. Decades later, the house had fallen into such disrepair that in 1994 it had to be demolished. It's a vacant lot now; there are many boarded-up houses nearby.

But what was once a blight on the city is now its best hope.

"The construction in the city of St. Louis is awesome," said rehabber Claire Vogt of Millennium Restoration. "The walls are three bricks thick."

Vogt and her son, Tim, are giving new life to long-abandoned buildings. They took us on a tour of three buildings -- a house, a carriage house, and a small warehouse that had been used most recently as a dairy.

"This project was sitting abandoned for 20 years," Tim said. "We were the only ones crazy enough to take this on."

Now, for the first time in years, suburbanites and out-of-towners are giving the city a second look. "It is important to maintaining the fabric of the city," Tim said. "You are preserving the history of the city and the neighborhood."

Jeffrey Hall and his wife, Susannah Ryan, bought one of the Vogts' renovated houses when they moved to St. Louis from Washington, D.C., last year.

"We decided this is important to us," Hall said. "To be able to enjoy the night life, enjoy what the city has to offer." He added most suburbs were too "cookie cutter" for their tastes.

John Hoal, professor of architecture and urban design at Washington University, said we were seeing a remarkable trend in urban renewal.

"The growth continues on the edge, but there is revitalization in a series of focus areas in what used to be considered the dead doughnut shape," he said. "And slowly parts of those are coming together."

But he noted it was a very slow, 20-year process.

He also mentioned that the St. Louis area had one of the highest rates of sprawl in the country. Fifty years ago, the city had 850,000 residents. But with flight to the suburbs, that number is now fewer than 350,000.

"Over a 30-year period," explained Hoal, "we have taken a 7 percent growth of population and spread it over three times the amount of land that is needed."

So, with new subdivisions springing up farther and farther from the city center, and a dedicated core of renovators saving the old city homes, a new dead zone is being created in the middle.

"Some of the fastest-deteriorating areas are the inner-ring suburbs in a region," explained Hoal, "and so the value's not adding up there."

As a result, the suburbs that people moved to in the 1950s and 1960s are fading out.

Hoal made it clear that the problems and triumphs in St. Louis were also happening in other "mid-level, slow-growth Midwestern cities" -- Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Cincinnati; and Milwaukee, among others.

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